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(image via Michael Wolf)

SAN FRANCISCO — With increasing frequency, it seems, toys from China provoke controversy. Making the rounds recently has been the photography of Michael Wolf, who has been documenting conditions in Chinese toy factories. Dubbed The Real Toy Story, his series features portraits of factory workers with the toys they make. It was also part of an installation with actual toys plastered up and down the walls, reminiscent of the scale of production that enables this economy.

In many ways a blunter version of Lorena Turner’s evocative Made in China series and the dark humor of Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia?, Wolf’s series brings a more confrontational directness to the story of goods made in China. The large number of women portrayed in the photos helps reveal the fact that more women than men work in factories, though they should be taken as part of their larger context. A recent article from Gloria Wang at Tea Leaf Nation looked at Leslie Chang’s Factory Girls, which highlighted the complexities of this story with greater depth:

Unlike other works preoccupied with stereotypes of migrant workers and factory clichés such as abuse, misery, and injuries, “Factory Girls” traces the lives and experiences of two migrant girls working in Dongguan, a booming manufacturing city in southern China. In pursuit of a better life, the girls switch jobs, leave behind friends and navigate relationships, constantly moving on and moving up.

A recent trip to the Alternative Press Expo here in San Francisco got me thinking about the sources of our toys. The ubiquity of the “Made in China” label doesn’t capture who made the toys, what motivated them, what their hopes and dreams are. But a sizeable number of independent toy and figurine makers at the Expo led me to wonder about alternatives to this space. Just as the internet and low-cost printers have enabled alternative presses to grow in recent years, toys seem to be on the resurgence thanks to cheaper materials and the possibility of sales via sites like Etsy.

A Dorklandia squid for sale. (image courtesy Kayte Kelly)

Dorklandia, a Bay Area-based toy making practice by Kayte Kelly, features crocheted toys like this terrific squid and little octopi and cats. Kits are available for crafty customers who want to make the toys themselves. “I love being able to give people the option to buy a finished product or make one on their own by buying a kit or a pattern,” Kelly noted in an interview with Hyperallergic. And though sales are important, so is the opportunity to connect directly with buyers: “Selling at shows is a valuable experience, I get immediate feedback about the toys and about their prices.”

Other toys and figures I spotted included Emma Sancartier’s Odd Fauna collection, a series of tiny figurines that seem to be the embodiment of her illustrations, and the work of jakc designs, whose stuffed rice balls and sushi are as cute as they are inedible. “Through the evolution of my company,” noted Jen, jakc’s founder, “I feel the most important and challenging thing is to retain the quality and love it takes to create goods designed and crafted by my hand.  A lot of times people find my work through these fairs which lead to greater sales online.”

A burger set by Jakc Designers. (image courtesy the designer)

As with any maker who struggles between personal creativity and the benefits of going commercial, independent toy makers often have to strike a balance. But by supporting their work financially, we can both encourage their practice and minimize the impact a globalized toy industry has on individuals with limited economics options.

“It is very satisfying to look over my work and think, ‘I made every single bit of that,’” Kelly wrote, “but if I want my work to get picked up by a distributor and have my toys in stores, I’ll have to go from maker to designer-and-outsourcer to have reasonable production levels.”

One of Emma Sancartier’s handmade figurines. (image courtesy the designer)

Independently-made toys will probably never replace mass production and outsourcing, but they point to another way.  Wolf’s photography and the discussions it has provoked suggest a growing interest in where our toys come from.  Jen from jakc, who also sells her work at brick and mortar stores, pointed out the potential for the internet and fairs in creating new bridges and markets:

There are consumers who want toys not manufactured overseas, toys that consider sustainability, ones that are carefully created, marketed, sold and distributed by a single person they can put a face to. Meanwhile, now that the internet has provided the opportunity of international visibility to these independent toy makers working from their garages and studios, creativity and hard work have a better chance of being appreciated.

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